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China taught me about me

I was told it’d be hard to write on a trip like this, that I’d be overwhelmed with all the details and changes. My original thought was, “Nah—I got this. I’m a writer; it’s a natural extension of who I am. I process by writing, for goodness sakes.” Well guess what—so far it’s been hard to write on the trip.

I think my writerly brain and body automatically shut down a bit somewhere near the end of our time in Beijing in order to make space for all of its surrounding newness, on search for a permission slip to ease into all “this” slowly, craving kindness and graciousness to fully adjust well. That was more than two weeks ago now.

ancient lion statue

Try as I may to escape it, I’ve had it confirmed that yep, I’m indeed made a writer, and I process through writing. If I go too long on hiatus, I get clogged, constipated, contracting an unexpected case of verbal and emotional constipation, which will proceed to barrel out of me at terribly inconvenient times, such as when I’m swaying on an overcrowded, overheated bus and my children won’t stand still and the ticket lady is yelling at me in a language I don’t understand. For example.

By forcing the art of journaling into a rhythmic part of my nomadic life this year, I’ll better translate both my thoughts and the world around me. Try as I may to escape it, I’m made to process through writing. Pen and paper are my conduit.

In our almost four weeks thus far on the road, I familiarized myself with the basics of China and have dipped my toes into the early stages of Thai expat living, yes—but really I’ve come to a more intimate understanding of myself. What I’m like as a culturally-stressed traveler, for example. China has prospered economically in the 12 years since we last visited, and after chatting with a few locals, I turned the bend in our time there convinced that there are more similarities than differences between a 30-something girl from China and the U.S.

But there are many norms in East Asia that just don’t fly back in my home culture, and if I were to live here permanently as an expat, I’d grant myself a few years to fully learn to live with them, like I did when we lived in Turkey. As a traveler, they just annoy me.

Exhibit A: Our kids were prodded and photographed without our permission. All. The. Time.

selfie culture

Yangshuo kid pic

Exhibit B: It’s crowded and loud and sometimes smelly.


Exhibit C: The Internet was so ridiculously, painstakingly slow in China, and I’m not a pretty person when I’m trying to book an apartment in Hong Kong and the wifi won’t cooperate and the login page from the coffee shop is entirely written in an alphabet I can’t remotely pronounce, all to perform a task that would take mere minutes elsewhere. (The phrase Ugly American comes to mind.)

Add a layer of Chinese government paranoia that disallows anything Google without a masking VPN, having us crawl the web via Canada before heading back to our laptops in a Xi’an coffee shop, and we’re just begging for an extra dose of patience and understanding from our Creator.

yangshuo street 02

yangshuo hills

yangshuo boys

I’m obviously all about living slow. But it was admittedly hard to embrace in polluted, concrete jungles where my personal rights aren’t given a moments’ thought. (I know. So American.)

Before I left the States, I squared away everything with Katie, the blog’s managing editor and my good friend. I wrote in advance. She knows how to keep the blog running, and we both high-fived our agreement that if I’m completely offline for three weeks because of Chinese unpredictability, nothing’s wrong.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t still panic when I couldn’t get online and at least take a peek at how life online is faring. It’s a strange feeling, being disconnected against your own terms (as opposed to our time in Tuscany, for instance), particularly when you make a living by what you publish on the Internet.

Looking back now, now here in Thailand where our Internet is just fine, I realize it sounds a bit ridiculous. I know I’m not missing much—I’m regularly reminded how easily life goes on when I’m not keeping up with other people’s food choices on Facebook. Yet it was disorienting to walk the mottled concrete sidewalks of China and really not have a clue what’s going on outside the three feet around me.

Yet now that those sidewalks in central China are a few weeks behind me, I remember that this is what I’m here for. One of our paramount reasons to travel is to live life differently, to walk at a different cadence, to let life pulse a different rhythm. I want my work and writing life to morph into the same, to publish and interact and present the Internet my offerings in altered cadences, rhythms.

writing in china

It’s a simple-yet-hard habit-breaking process, this being in Asia and allowing my body to be fully here.

Slowly, slowly I’m shedding my work-from-home blogger self, in order to fully adapt as a year-long nomadic writer. Which isn’t a bad cape to wear, I admit. I’m just surprised how comfortable it was to write in those home-bound yoga pants.

chinese noodles

What we did in China:

…and in Hong Kong:

  • Ocean Park—seems cheesy, but they do have an excellent aquarium and panda exhibit.
  • Watch Kyle’s excellent 15-second video of Hong Kong transport here on Instagram. We actually adored this city—wish we were there for more than two days.

…yet really, most of our time was spent hanging out, walking everywhere, visiting friends new and old, doing work and school, and eating food. And more food.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Ashley R

    So glad we got to meet you and your family while you were in China. This post was so good for me to read. It validated some of what I am struggling with living here. This city is really an assault on peace and simplicity and introversion, and even though I love China and her people, I am still trying to figure out how to live here well. It is hard. Every. Single. Day. Thanks for the reminder that it’s okay to grant myself years and not just months to figure out how to live and find beauty in this place where the Creator has placed our family. Also, I should probably start writing again. Maybe that journal needs to be dusted off…May you find some rhythm and peace in Thailand.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Ashley, meeting you in Xi’an was truly a highlight of my entire time in China! So glad to call you a new friend now. Please stay in touch! XO

  2. Angela Mills

    This made me want to go to more unfamiliar places. But what stuck me the most was people photographing your children. Do you have any idea why they do that? I understand that it must be a cultural thing to think it’s ok, but I don’t understand WHY they want pics with your kids! That would bother me for sure.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      I’m honestly not sure! Perhaps someone here who lives in China, or at least has spent more time there than me, can fill us in on that? I’m truly baffled by it.

    • Beth

      We have lived in China for going on four years. My son was born here. I love it here but even four years later there are still what we call “waves” of culture shock. Days that we love it and can’t imagine living anywhere else and other days when things go so “wrong” to even our culturally adjusted selves that we don’t want to leave the house. Thankfully the former come more frequently than the latter. As for the pictures: Chinese people like to take pictures of foreign kids because they look different. Imagine living somewhere that everyone has your same hair color and eye color and general features. They find different skin, eye, and hair colors (especially blond hair) fascinating and beautiful. What do you do when you see something fascinating and beautiful? You take a picture 🙂 We visited Beijing a week ago and we joked that our blond haired one year old was one of the attractions by the number of pictures taken of him! I think it’s easier for our son because he was born here – he’s used to it. He just ignores people (especially adults) if he doesn’t want to deal with them. He loves talking to kids when we go out. He’ll beg for snacks because he knows people want to make him smile. He also understands some Chinese so that helps. Chinese people don’t like to make babies cry so if he starts to fuss they usually hand him right back and we don’t force him to be held by complete strangers. It’s hardest for us when it’s been happening all day and we’re just trying to get somewhere or I’m trying to change his diaper and there’s a crowd. Most of the time we can handle it graciously. As he gets older we’ll have to work on helping him set boundaries but still be polite with people. We are trying hard to help him learn the language and I think that will help him a lot in being able to communicate his desires in a situation. Then he will be less of a “pretty doll” and more of a real person with a will of his own.

  3. Ceejay

    Like your first commenter, I live in China with my family for…ahem…kingdom reasons, and it is validating to hear your struggles and know I was normal in my own struggles during our first year living here. But having lived here longer, learned more language, and made more friends, I now feel a strong urge to defend my beloved country

    • Ceejay

      Ah sorry! Internet issues! Anyway, it has taken much learning for me to get here and to begin to see difficult aspects of the culture (such as the photographing of our kids and their constant propensity to give advice, such as “your baby is not dressed warmly enough) for what they are–expressions of care and respect.

      As you are traveling, I highly recommend the book Make Haste Slowly by Don Smith, or Creating Understanding, also by him. We attended a seminar the the Worldview Center in Portland, which he founded, and we gained so many helpful tools and paradigms for observing, learning about, and penetrating to the heart of cultures around us, as well as our own cultural baggage. I think these would be excellent tools for you and your family as you take in so many new cultures this year!

      • Ashley R

        Ceejay, I too quickly learned to see most things as expressions of care and concern for our well being. And there is so much that I love and defend to outsiders about this country. I think the hard thing is not so much the specific culture but the environment of a big, polluted, crowded city on top of the stress that comes with living cross-culturally, no matter what the culture.

        I still haven’t figured out how to handle the kids being photographed issue, though. Some days it is harder than others. When we are in tourist spots (not our neighborhood), we allow our kids to say, “One picture, one kuai!” We find that makes them more willing to go out, makes some Chinese stop to think that maybe taking those photos could be rude, and at least makes everyone laugh. But when they grab my toddler and fight him to get a photo when he is trying to get back to me, I just go into mama bear mode and forget about cultural courtesy! It’s hard to find the balance of being polite and teaching my kids it’s okay to say no if people are touching them and making them feel uncomfortable.

        • Tsh Oxenreider

          TOTALLY get that mama bear mode, Ashley… I got that there for the three weeks we visited, so I can’t even imagine living with that nonstop (though I did feel that way a bit in Turkey).

  4. Terri Zimmermann

    Just…WOW! Loving following your journey. And your process.

  5. Dawn Fong

    Oh, man. Navigating the fact that we dealt with having people want to touch and take our kids’ pictures was one of the hardest aspects of living in Thailand (I”d be interested to know how you’re finding the Thai compare to the Chinese in how they approach your kids). My kids are shy and while some kids might enjoy that kind of “rockstar status,” my kids definitely did not. While I expect my children to be friendly and respectful toward others and I wanted to be a gracious guest within the Thai culture, I also wanted my kids to know that they can say, “no,” when they are uncomfortable. I hope the time in Thailand is a great one for your family – enjoy the Thai friendliness and laid-back culture! So cool that you’ll be there during Loy Kratong!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      That’s so interesting—tonight our kids were JUST talking about how what a welcome respite Thailand is because no one’s bothering them like they were in China! I gotta tell you, in our experience, it’s much, MUCH worse there. They’re much more aggressive and touchy—personal space just isn’t a concept in a country that’s so much about group think. That said, most of them were friendly and were eager out of good motives. So there’s that. 😉

      And yeah, we absolutely gave our kids the freedom to say no if they were uncomfortable (and of course, our 4-year-old, the one they were most interested in, took us up on that most of the time!). I think that’s really important to relay to kids that we’re on their side in this department.

      We’re loving Thailand (again) so far! And yeah, super excited about Loy Kratong. Haven’t seen it before!

  6. Katelyn

    Taking photos of others’ children or wanting to touch them extends to South Korea too with some locations worse than others. Our 4 year old garners a lot of attention when we go out. I freely admit to not allowing photos, especially as they try to grab and hug or pull him closer into their family group and he is clearly uncomfortable trying to get away or hide behind me. Do not manhandle my child! I’m good with my son waving or even high fiving when he’s up to it though. And while it doesn’t bother me, I find the silly giggles and surprised looks from the school girls baffling when they waved at him first and he waved back. He’s not a doll.

  7. Roadschooling - Families Homeschooling on the Road

    Hi Tsh!,
    Great Blog post! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I am so sorry that you had to deal with such an unexpected invasion of privacy though. I suppose that I can understand where seeing someone who looks a bit different than yourself, could make a person stare, but I am surprised that someone would take it beyond just stares to actual photos?! As much as I would LOVE to visit China, I am not sure if I would be able to handle random people taking photos of my children :/
    ~>I also wanted to let you know that I will be sharing this blog entry on my Roadschooling page tomorrow morning 🙂 Please feel free to check us out at:

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